Whether you have lived in a city for years or are visiting one for the first time you probably prefer to take some sort of train when using public transportation. I believe this is due to the perceived superior reliability, safety and ease of use for trains. After all, trains are on tracks that only go in two directions and there are defined stops. Buses are just enormous cars that could go anywhere, even if they supposedly are supposed to go certain places. However, I think a lot of it has to do with maps. We are all used to the transit maps like that used in London. It’s a relatively abstract system of lines and colors showing where the various subway trains travel to and where they intersect with each other.
Have you ever seen a bus map like that? I have not, but that does not mean they do not exist. Certainly such maps are easier when there is a guaranteed bus line such as bus rapid transit systems, like those in Las Vegas or Hartford. Systems that have dedicated lanes or demarcated lanes where buses go are much more analagous to light rail. This is even more true where bus stops have fare gates, such as certain places on Boston’s Silver Line.
The Transportationist (see blogroll) has discussed improving bus signage to make buses more desirable. I believe this is critical. Buses are intimidating to the unitiated, becasue unless you’ve ridden one before or are intensely familiar with a neighborhood, where a bus goes and where it stops seem intensely mysterious. When you enter a subway station on the other hand you usually are shown at least a system map and many times shown a system map overlaid upon a geographic map. I cannot remember the last time I saw this at a bus stop.
I recognize the difficulties of producing bus maps; the malleability of bus routes, fluctuation in stops, the lack of permanence of many stops, the challenge of portraying dozens of bus maps on one map. I agree that to portray every bus route on one map would be beyond chaotic. However, I believe urban transit systems could begin with their most heavily travelled lines. Maps should show where buses go, how frequently they travel, how frequently they stop (because if the bus stops every block or two blocks it is not necessary to portary every stop) and where the bus route intersects with other routes and other transit options. If buses travel on city routes it would also be potentially helpful if lines were painted on the street to show where buses travel. There is no doubt where trains go, just follow the tracks or the subway stops. However, it’s not always so clear for buses, especially, if there is no shed or covering at the stop. Therefore, better signage is required at stops to alert people where they in fact are. They should be visible from a distance, not small like no parking signs.
Buses have a long history in this country of being portrayed as an undesirable means of transportation. In the first third of the 20th century General Motors bought out trolley systems across the country and replaced them with bus systems for the twofold reason that they could produce the buses and fewere people want to ride buses than trolleys and would therefore be more likely to drive. However insidious it was also insightful. Trains are more desirable than bus lines, but much can be done to improve bus lines such that they are more rider friendly. Visitors and residents to cities alike should see the bus system as a matter of access, not a burden less worthy of their patronage than rail.